NORAH JONES HAS ONE REQUEST: “Please don’t make me sound like a crazy dog lady,” she says, sipping a watermelon martini in a bar near her East Village apartment. Which isn’t surprising, considering the degree to which dogs figure in her life right now. There’s the brown poodle puppy she adopted and named Ralph. Then there’s the St. Bernard on the cover of her new album, The Fall, which closes with a dog-themed song called “Man of the Hour.” (Key lyric: “You never lie/And you don’t cheat/You don’t have any baggage tied/ To your four feet.”) The tune ends with a cheerful “woof.” “I just felt like my dog-ological clock was ticking,” Jones, 30, says. “I know a lot of girls my age who have gone through a similar thing recently, just really wanting a pet to take care of. It’s probably something to do with wanting babies someday. I think I bought myself a few years.”
Ralph came into Jones’ life at a time when a lot was changing. Two years ago, she broke up with her longtime boyfriend, bassist Lee Alexander. The two had dated and performed together since the beginning of Jones’ career, in 2000, creating her first three albums — 2002’s Come Away With Me, 2004s Feels Like Home and 2007’s Not Too Late, which have sold a staggering 36 million copies worldwide.
The breakup rocked every part of her world. After years of living in homes in Brooklyn, Jones bought a massive loft in Manhattan’s East Village. She also began writing songs — but had no idea how to go about finding a band to record them. “Once I had a batch of songs that I was proud of, I thought, ‘I like these, I should demo them up,'” she says. “But the band I was touring with for seven years” — which included Alexander — “we’d come to this crossroads.” Primarily because of her adoration of Tom Waits’ 1999 classic, Mule Variations, she connected with engineer-producer Jacquire King, who also worked with Modest Mouse and Kings of Leon. Says Jones, “That’s when everything fell into place.”
The tracks Jones and King recorded — open, sparse sound collages — “have a different sonic landscape than anything I’ve done in the past,” Jones says. On “Back to Manhattan,” which Jones describes as “a highly emotional song for me,” she sings, “I have a prince who is waiting and a kingdom downtown/I’ll go back to Manhattan as if nothing ever happened.” King brought studio stars, including drummers Joey Waronker and James Gadson and guitarists Smokey Hormel and Marc Ribot, to sessions in Los Angeles and in Jones’ apartment. The disc also features songvvriting collaborations with Ryan Adams (on the gorgeous, smoldering torch song “Light as a Feather”), Okkervil River’s Will Sheff (“Stuck”) and Jones’ old friend Jesse Harris (“Even Though”). “Jacquire and I were afraid that the songs were too all over the place,” she says. “But I figured, ‘Hey, I’ll be the thread. It’s my record, after all.'”
Two martinis in, Jones — who’s fond of words like “dude” and “bro,” and doling out fist-bumps — is incredibly pleasant to be around. “Everyone says that,” Jones agrees. “I say, ‘Are other [famous] people that fucked up?'” She avoids fancy-restaurants, preferringto cook herself — her goal is to replicate the fried chicken she loves from the Memphis joint Gus’s. Over the years she’s been befriended by her hero Willie Nelson and sung on albums by the Foo Fighters, Q-Tip and comedian Andy Samberg’s project, Incredibad. Even Keith Richards is her buddy, after they duetted in 2005 on “Love Hurts.” “He had his arm around me the whole time,” Jones remembers. “My mom was like, ‘What was that?’ I mean, I might have looked terrified, but I loved every second of it.”
Jones doesn’t exactly write fast — “A song happens every few weeks or a month,” she says — but that doesn’t mean she isn’t always making music. In the past few years, Jones has created three casual side projects: the Little Willies, a country-flavored outfit featuring Alexander; her pop outfit, El Madmo, in which she wears a wig during secret shows; and an all-girl trio, Puss in Boots, who cover songs like Johnny Cash’s “Bull Rider.” “Depending on how many drinks I have, it’s like taking on a whole different personality,” she says. “If I get too self-conscious, I feel like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m in a wig, wearing platform shoes and holding a guitar.’ If I get into the zone, though, it’s a blast.”
Jones was born in Manhattan in 1979. She spent her first four years living with her mother in an apartment on Lexington Avenue and 24th Street, before they moved to the Dallas suburb of Grapevine to be closer to her mom’s family in Oklahoma. “We’d come back to New York and see my dad here sometimes,” she says, referring to her father, sitar master Ravi Shankar, “and I remember coming again when I was 14, and I was completely, totally in love with it.” Though she always sang — soloing in her church choir — and was a huge fan of her mother’s country LPs and jazz records, she says, “I didn’t even know that I wanted to be a musician at that point, but I could picture my adulthood in New York.”
Jones dreamed of one day living in a loft like the one Tom Hanks rented in Big. “And now I have it!” she says. Her sun-soaked East Village space might not be equipped with a bunk bed and arcade games, but it’s a total dream pad for a bachelorette musician, with its old Victrola, a massive kitchen where she has spent hours perfecting pasta and fried-chicken recipes, and a soundproof home studio — where, under an old playbill advertising a performance by the Band, sits a grand piano. She can’t stand the neighborhood’s constant construction — which sometimes drives her out of her bedroom and onto an Aerobed she inflates underthat grand piano — so she recently bought a new $5 million brownstone back in Brooklyn.
Without offering many details, she confides that she’s seeing a new man — a fiction writer: “It’s the first time I’ve ever dated a nonmusician.” And generally, she’s delighted by all the new people in her life. “It was great to get out of my circle,” says Jones. “Me and Jacquire worked well together, and I made a lot of margaritas. It was fun recording at home and having some funny late nights. It was fun not recording there also, because then I wouldn’t have to clean the kitchen the next morning.”